John Updike hardly needs to burnish his credentials as America's leading man of letters. Yet in "Still Looking," the prolific author of 50...

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“Still Looking: Essays on American Art”
by John Updike
Knopf, 288 pp., $40

John Updike hardly needs to burnish his credentials as America’s leading man of letters. Yet in “Still Looking,” the prolific author of 50 books, including 20 novels and many volumes of poetry and literary criticism, also proves himself to be an astute and vigorous art critic.

Many of the 18 essays in this lushly illustrated (227 color illustrations) volume first appeared in “The New York Review of Books.” A previous book, “Just Looking” (1989), was an eclectic collection of Updike’s reviews of major 19th- and 20th-century artists.

In “Still Looking,” Updike examines art in the 20th century, when Americans emerged as prominent innovators. By no means a comprehensive survey of this era, these are reviews of major art shows he’s attended, mostly in New York and other eastern U.S. cities. Included are the icons of contemporary American art — Homer, Hopper, Pollock and Warhol — but also the pioneering efforts of the lesser-known Albert Ryder, Arthur Dove and Childe Hassam.

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Updike is a perceptive reviewer with an impressively broad knowledge of his topic. His descriptions of paintings are vivid and precise, providing convincing evidence for his interpretations. He also taps his considerable literary acumen, calling Winslow Homer, for instance, “painting’s Melville,” for his ground-breaking canvases of the sea and “far-flung outdoor space.”

Updike is generous in his praise for artists, both famed and obscure, but his writing especially shines when describing the work and lives of American legends Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock — the material is richer and more riveting for these celebrated artists, and so is Updike’s telling.

Of Pollock’s notable rise to fame and subsequent flameout, Updike writes, “There is an American tendency to see art as a spiritual feat, a moment of amazing grace. Pollock’s emblematic career tells us, with perverse reassurance, how brief and hazardous the visitations of grace can be.”

This book is double the pleasure: the delight in learning about brilliant artwork and artists at their peak, and Updike’s own mastery in the written rendering.